When to Assess a War’s Progress?

Cato’s Andrew Coulson argues that, “It is never the waging of wars that makes you safer, only the winning of them.”

The U.S. was not safer in 1942—1945 than it had been in early 1941. We entered World War II because winning it would make America safer. In trying to win it, we suffered over a million casualties.

Part of the argument for toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime was that a beachhead for freedom and democracy in a Muslim Middle Eastern nation would, in the long term, weaken militant Islamism and promote peace. It was never suggested that the process of trying to create that beachhead would itself make anyone safer — no more than it was suggested that Americans would be safer during our participation in WW II.

Now, of course, we’ve been in Iraq 3-1/2 years, roughly the amount of time the United States spent fighting the Nazis, with rather less to show for it. Even Coulson is unwilling to argue that “freedom and democracy are sure (or even likely) to take root in Iraq.”

Still, I’m not sure his argument merits being dismissed as “a ‘don’t confuse me with the facts’ approach,” by David Beito, let alone being placed among the “dumbest f—ers on the planet” by Jim Henley.

Indeed, Coulson’s argument amounts to a truism. Societies are generally worse off during a war than they were before it and it can be generations before the price paid is “worth it” even after the political objectives for which the war was fought are achieved.

Is Coulson’s argument falsifiable, as Beito demands? Well, no. It’s axiomatic that processes underway may produce better results than the status quo but one can’t disprove a prediction about an open-ended eventuality. Then again, wars aren’t scientific experiments.

And, contra Henley, one could certainly make the argument that the failure of the Soviets to produce anything close to paradise by the 1970s did not disprove Marxian theory. After fifty years, of course, it would have been difficult to argue that the Leninist-Stalist model was going to end well.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I’m not sure I buy the argument that there is no change in security over the course of the war. You can argue that the high point of UK peril was in the Summer of 1940. But by 1944, the dangers of the U-boat war and certainly an invasion that could take over England were reduced (in the case of the invasion arguably eliminated). Civilian losses in the UK were 43,000 in 40-41, but fell to 17,000 for 42-45, so certainly while it wasn’t safe with V1 and V2 rockets raining down, it was safer than the height of the blitz.

    On the other hand, all of this could have been turned around if the Nazi’s had gotten the A-bomb first.

    In 41-42, there was real concern about a Japanese invasion of the west coast. By 43-45, no one seriously thought the Japanese could invade the west coast. Of course, some of the bloodiest battles were also fought in the last year of the war.

    On the other hand, it is certainly true that winning the war decreases most risks (though the uncertainty that occurs after a war often brings about new risks). As the AQ has acknowledged, we are killing there troops at a higher rate than they are killing ours and they have a “paucity” of resources. Letting up would not make us safer.

    A good example is the invasion of Normandy. The allied air forces took 12,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured) in April and May 1944. A further 10,000 casualties, including 2500 dead were taken on D-day. Would we have been safer if we had then withdrawn our troops? We certainly could have avoided some future casualties, such as at the battle of the bulge, but the bolstering of morale for the Nazis, the suspicion of Russia on our heart not really being in the war and the loss of morale among our armies would have made us less safe. FDR could figure that out, but our modern day democrats apparently don’t have that clue.

  2. legion says:

    WWII ended when the Axis powers were defeated.

    The Cold War ended when the USSR collapsed.

    What exactly is the ‘end state’ for the GWOT? A rainbow on every streetcorner and a unicorn in every garage?

  3. Legion,

    When did the war of northern aggression end? Appomattox? Then what about the battle of Palmetto ranch which happened later (and the south won). Was it the end of reconstruction?

    When did world war one end? 11-11-18? In 1919 with the signing of the Versailles treaty? Or in 1945 with a long pause. Did you know that the US didn’t sign the Versailles peace treaty? So did world war I really end for us?

    What about the war of 1812, when did it end? Treaty of Ghent or battle of New Orleans?

    Is the cold war really over or are we only fighting mop operations in Cuba and North Korea? Given the nukes in Russia and China’s hands, are we really free from the threats associated with the cold war? Is Putin just another face of the cold war?

    The point I am trying to make is that war is not necessarily a binary on-off. Especially because we don’t have a recognized nation state to sit on the deck of the Missouri and sign papers.

    I think the end of the war on terror occurs when

    1) No nation state overtly or covertly supports a terrorist group, knowing that such support would mean the end of their government. The reason why this is so important is that removing nation state support, where every governments hand is turned against the terrorist really does move it from a war to a police action.

    2) When advocating terrorist attacks is as prevalent and popular as advocating Nazi ideology. As long as there is a socially accepted view that advocating the killing of innocent civilians is an acceptable way of achieving political results, then the GWOT is not over. Whether the support stops because “Gee that didn’t work and we lose more advocating terrorism than we can possible gain” or “It is just wrong” I don’t care.

    With what I just described, I would think the war on terror is over. Could there be alternative milestones to use? Sure. If you don’t like mine, propose some of your own (hopefully more realistic than rainbows and unicorns).

  4. madmatt says:

    Of ocurse roosevelt never promised a 6 month victory either!

  5. Madmatt,

    Can you point to where Bush promised a 6 month victory?

    I also note you are substituting snark for reasoned debate.

  6. legion says:

    Very interesting answer. I think your #2 option is much more achievable, although not by much. #1 would basically require every gov’t in the world to have no secrets. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I don’t believe the necessary preconditions for #1 would ever be accepted by enough people. The problem with #2, though, is – how long after the “last” terror attack would you declare victory? And what happens the next time after that someone hijacks a plane? The wars we’ve both listed otherwise were all against readily identifiable groups or nations. There isn’t even a truly agreed-upon definition of terrorist – if there was, there should have been a lot more celebrating of the recent execution of Christian terrorists in Indonesia… Terror is _always_ going to be an available option to a desperate-enough group – if they’re really willing to die to make their point, there’s not much we can threaten them with…

    In fact, I agree with pretty much everything else you say – my main point is that this administration’s attempt to link things like war powers, as well as occasional phrases like ‘martial law’ or ‘wartime economy’ to such a ‘non-binary’, no-expiration-date thing as a war on terror is absolute crap. It only makes the slightest bit of sense in the context of an utterly naked grab for unchecked, never-ending dictatorial power.

  7. Now, of course, we’ve been in Iraq 3-1/2 years, roughly the amount of time the United States spent fighting the Nazis, with rather less to show for it.

    For many reasons, this is an unfair comment.

    Gee, maybe there wouldn’t have been an insurgency at all if we had just fire bombed Bahgdad and Tikrit into oblivion, as we did with many German cities in WW II, or nuked them as we did with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nothing takes the fight out of ’em like incendiary carpet bombing or a thermonuclear device, after all. Then again, we do tend to be a little more circumspect when it comes to using such brutal tactics these days.

    All I’m trying to say is that everything has changed. Absolutely everything, including the weapons, tactics, allies, enemies, media, national politics, international politics, et al. To pick one item, e.g. the time frame, as the measure of success or failure is ridiculous.

    I know I’m barking at the moon now, but what if this is as good as it gets?

  8. James Joyner says:


    Fair points. Counterinsurgency is simply a different mission than traditional warfighting.

    As to your question: If this is, indeed, as good as it gets, we’ve failed. That seems clear enough.

  9. vnjagvet says:

    Wars have fronts. Fronts are chosen by the belligerants. Al Queda chose the USA, Spain, the UK, France and other European countries as its desired fronts when it attacked them using a variety of techniques.

    The US chose Afghanistan and Iraq as its fronts. One of the announced purposes of opening those fronts was to deprive Al Queda of sanctuaries in which it could plan and equip its minions to carry out attacks on its chosen fronts.

    So far, this US strategy has worked with a minimum of US military casualties. By any measure, the rate of military losses in the five years since 9/11/01 have been among the lowest in the history of warfare. In addition, the objective of minimizing attacks on our homeland has been met beyond the expectations extant in the days after 9/11/01.

    Why abandon the Iraqi front? Have our military casualties escalated to Vietnam-like rates? No. Have the number of attacks on our population increased in number or severity? No.

    What has happened is a nasty escalation of violence among the various factions in their quest for power in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does this factional violence obviate the benefits to our national interest represented by our choice of the fronts for the war? It does not.

    So should we leave Iraq without appropriate transition? Not unless we want to show the terrorists that we can be intimidated not only by violence against us, but against innocent muslim civilians as well.

  10. Thanks James, and I apologize for the too harsh tenor of my previous comment.

    As we all know, sometimes all we have to choose from are a number of bad and worse options. In many respects, I still think this is probably as good as it gets, given the poisoned nature of our national politics, rampant Ludditism masquerading as anti-Americanism around the globe, and the simple fact that it remains at least one-hundred times easier to destroy than it is to build and we are facing an enemy that puts more stock and faith in destruction than building.


  11. legion says:

    One of the announced purposes of opening those fronts was to deprive Al Queda of sanctuaries in which it could plan and equip its minions to carry out attacks on its chosen fronts.

    So far, this US strategy has worked with a minimum of US military casualties.

    Ummm… not really. Iraq was, at best, a half-assed stopover point for AQ, not a real sanctuary, since Saddam and Osama were never exactly “buddies”. And if you ask Pervez Musharraf, the mountains in Pakistan & Afghanistan are _still_ a perfectly safe place for AQ to hang out at. Now Bill Frist says we should just bend over and accept the Taliban as a part of any ruling coalition in Afghanistan – does that sound like success? And let’s not forget the way AQ and the Taliban are spreading their evil influence throughout the Muslim parts of Africa.

    So should we leave Iraq without appropriate transition?

    You assume our presence & what we’re doing there are moving Iraq _towards_ transition. I (and apparently most Iraqis) disagree…

  12. Legion,

    I think #1 is actually more easily achieved than #2 above. Certainly the overt is easily trackable, so lets not concentrate on that. The covert is based on risk assessment. When the chances of getting caught and the consequences of getting caught are high enough, the support for the practice will stop. Its not that we have to know everything going on, just that the perception is out there that they are likely to get caught and they will lose much more than they gain. To the extent the state is not a rational actor who could make such an assessment, such a state would need to be removed to ensure #1. We don’t need to catch every country every time covertly supporting terrorists. We just need to catch enough that they self regulate to avoid the chance of getting caught.

    I really would like to hear your alternative definition of when victory would be achieved. Unless you say that terrorism poses no threat to the US (please Pelosi, please hold a press conference and say this), then you need to either accept the definition provided or offer an alternative. I think this sort of “I don’t like Bush, so I don’t like what he does, but I am not going to offer any substantive proposals as alternatives or the alternatives I propose would clearly make the matter worse (e.g. cut and run)” is what really hurts the democrats.

    When you complain about open ended war and that this can only be a naked power grab for dictatorial control, you need to be able to contrast Clinton’s echelon program with the NSA intercept and why Bush is a naked grab for dictatorial control and Clinton wasn’t. I personally don’t think either is, but you need to stay consistent in your debate.

    I see the “campaign reform” as much more of a threat to our freedoms than anything in the patriot act, NSA intercepts or financial tracking. Limiting free speech is a much bigger danger than if the FBI can get a warrant to search my library records.

    Anyone can complain and just say “no” to whatever is proposed (a 2 year old can do this). It is much harder to propose substantive alternatives.

  13. legion says:

    You’re right about tracking terror support, but only so far as it covers nations. It’s a good starting point, but there are still many non-state arenas that could provide cover. I believe just earlier this week the FBI was discussing tracking possible connections between the mafia and AQ support. Although when they get powerful enough, criminal organizations could be considered ‘in control’ of a country, you’d have a hard time justifying the invasion of, say, Colombia to root out the Cali cartel. I suppose you could say that Britain ‘invaded’ Northern Ireland to take out the IRA, I’m not sure I’d call that a smashing success…

    As for my alternative suggestions, I take issue with your basic assumptions first. ‘Terrorism’ is not a group, or even a belief – it’s a tactic. I’m sure you’d agree that opposing terrorism doesn’t just mean fighting AQ; it also means the IRA, Tamil Tigers, etc. We cannot tolerate its use, even by groups whose ultimate goals we support or fund (cough*the Contras*cough). As for victory, I think something like normalized and peaceful relations with working governments in the countries that are currently the worst of the bunch – Iraq, Iran, Khazakstan, Libya, NK, etc. Which would also be a necessary step towards implementing your ideas…